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Democratic Backsliding in the Visegrad Four: Examining the Illiberal Turn

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The initial years of the post-communist era reflected a promising beginning of the consolidation of democracy in the Visegrad Four countries. Slovakia, the only exception to this regional trend of democratic consolidation under Mečiarism, also showed signs of successful transition with the revival of democracy after the 1998 elections. However, in the last few years, with the rise of eurosceptics, ultra-nationalists and populists, the democratic model has been facing grave challenges in these countries. Besides attacking the opposition, students’ organisations and NGOs,  the conservative leadership in these countries, have also passed regressive reforms in media, constitution, as well as the judiciary. These attacks and reforms are aimed at strengthening the power of eurosceptic populist leaders, and thereby reducing any chances of Eurocentric opposition in the future. But why, despite initial years of promising success, democratic consolidation failed in the V4 countries? This essay argues that the challenges to the democratic consolidation in these post-communist countries have been a result of myriad local, national and international factors at economic, political and social levels.

Primarily, the membership in the EU, which was a major foreign policy objective of the new political elite post-1989, had raised numerous expectations among the citizens in these countries. But after the EU membership in May 2004, when those expectations still seemed a distant dream for the citizens in these countries, the disappointment with the EU membership’s promises rose throughout the region. This disappointment soon became a fertile ground on which the conservative section of the political elite mobilised their support, which became evident with the victory of nationalistic and eurosceptic parties throughout the region.

This discontentment with the Western European model was made further worse by the economic crises of 2008-9 and the subsequent Euro debt crisis of 2011. Contrary to expectations that the EU membership will be a guarantor of economic prosperity and improved standards of living, the V4 countries had to suffer immensely as a result of these crises which primarily resulted because of the loopholes in other countries. Furthermore, the subsequent burden of reforms with adoption of EU’s austerity policies aimed at stabilising the European économies post-crises, also proved costly for these countries, and hence furthered their apathy towards the integrationist model of Brussels.

Post 2015, the Refugee Crisis, resulting due to the massive influx of illegal migrants into Europe from politically unstable areas of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, further fuelled the simmering anti-EU attitudes among the V4 countries. Though only Hungary was directly affected by the wave of these migrants, all V4 countries reflected a response which was reminiscent of classical xenophobia and exclusive nationalism. Despite these countries officially voting against Brussels’ proposal of obligatory refugee quotas, and opposing the financial aid given to Turkey following EU-Turkey deal to stop refugees from entering the EU, the conservative media and politicians in these countries left no stone unturned to show a face of refugees that immediately mobilised the people to vote populist demagogues to power at the cost of ruling out the Eurocentric federalists.

Finally, another important, and often overlooked reason for the failed democratic consolidation in the V4 countries has been their lack of historical experience with democracy. As a result of this lacked democratic experience, people in these countries failed to develop a democratic culture in a few decades post-1989, and instead found it easy to turn back to their familiar models.

However, despite all the gloomy prospects of democratic consolidation in the V4 countries, the region is not the only aberration. The rise of Euroscepticism, nationalism, and populism has been on the rise throughout the continent, which became evident with Brexit and the rise of conservative parties, like National Front and Alternative for Germany, among others. Therefore, it is imperative for the EU that these occasional setbacks in few countries must not hinder its vision of greater European integration. Because, any void created by declining role of Brussels in the Visegrad region will immediately be filled by Russia, which is craving to regain its influence in its ‘near-abroad.’

Moreover, the recent experiences from Afghanistan, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere, also made it clear that the quick imposition of the democratic model is not the universal solution for discrete problems across the world. The fact that the evolution of democracy took centuries of deliberate transformations, and occasional violent conflicts, in England, France, USA and elsewhere, must be kept in mind while assessing the democratic consolidation in any part of the world. Expecting successful transition and consolidation of democracy in the V4 countries, without keeping in mind that it has been only a few decades since these countries embarked on this painful transition, is in itself problematic.

Nonetheless, the post-1989 transition has also successfully contributed to transforming a considerable section of the population in these countries, who now show major disliking towards any non-democratic model. Therefore, even if the current situation of the V4is not a pleasant one, the big picture coming post-1989 is a reflection of a successful break with the ‘Other’ past.

Pirzada Junaid Ahmad is a ResearchScholar at the Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He holds a Master's degree in Conflict Analysis and Peace-building from Nelson Mandela Centre for Conflict Analysis and Peace-building, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Symbolism, Nationalism, Democratic Transition and Geopolitics.

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Geopolitical considerations on the conflict in Ukraine and the faint-hearted European Union

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Image source: war.ukraine.ua

The Ukrainian crisis has changed the post-Cold War status quo ante in Europe. Viewing the Western partners’ support for a regime change in Ukraine as a betrayal, Russia has defended its vital interests, while the West regards all this as pure aggression by a superpower.

The Ukrainian crisis has opened a period of Russian-US rivalry, even of confrontation, reminiscent of the Great Game of the 19th century: the struggle for supremacy between the Russian and British empires. This competition is asymmetrical and highly unequal. Since February the current conflict, extending into the political, economic and information spheres, has also included the war side. It differs from the Cold War insofar as people-to-people contacts, trade and information flows are not completely disrupted and cooperation between the parties is partially preserved.

Russia’s interests are focused on post-Soviet integration in Eurasia, while the United States starts to re-establish Truman-style policy of containment against Russia in Europe.

The US approach to Russia reflects traditional fears, even phobias, and is not based on an adequate understanding of the country, not least because Russia has ceased to be the focus of the US foreign policy, as it was in the 1945-1991 period – a “fear” currently replaced by the People’s Republic of China.

The international system is becoming more balanced and the United States must prepare for this by developing a policy line that takes into account the interests of the major players, including Russia. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are becoming the focus of a struggle for influence between the United States and Russia. This rivalry is also affecting a number of other countries and territories, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian North Caucasus, Crimea and the Baltic States, as we will see later. Meanwhile, in Central Europe, Poland – the most closely connected to the Ukrainian crisis – is hardening its stance against Russia.

With the development of the Ukrainian crisis, relations between Western Europe and Russia are changing significantly. The period of cooperation and mutual understanding that began with the reunification of Germany is over. This is also because Europe’s ruling classes – that have been living for 77 years in a pseudo-Kantian land of plenty – are largely devoted to issues that real Marxists once called “bourgeoisie itches”. Their greatest political effort is their attempt at imitating the US melting-pot, which is pursued by trying to remove the racist veneer that has characterised the Western world for the crimes of its imperialist-capitalist production system: the slave trade, ruthless colonialism, the massacres of World War I and II, the nuclear bombs on Japan, the Holocaust, the devastation of the Near and Middle East, the current geographically distant and invisible plunder of Africa.

The desire to appear good and sympathetic at all costs, under the US umbrella that – in the opinion of the aforementioned unprepared and incompetent ruling classes – should free us from all evils coming from the East. A new Athens of unconscious slaves, of metics, of women with few rights, and about whom there is much talk – just to beat around the bush by deceiving the eye. A political world halfway between a boarding school for scions of rich and noble families, and a middle school class of ignorant people.

Hence, faced with the growing hostility of the felix West of human rights and democracy-bringing bombings, Russia is turning more towards the East. The People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are also getting closer through the signing of gas agreements. They are also holding joint naval manoeuvres and expanding trade ties.

At the same time, Russia’s tough policy in Ukraine and its willingness to defy the United States have strengthened its reputation in the Middle East and West Asia. Just recall what the liberal West did in those places close to the World Cup in Qatar: four Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973); three Gulf wars (1980-1988, 1990-1991, 2003); civil war in Iraq (2003-2011); war in Afghanistan (1979-2022); Syrian civil war (2011-2002); first civil war in Libya (2011) and second civil war in Libya (2014-2022), not to mention the colour “revolutions”, the so-called Afro-Mediterranean “springs”, the wars in Africa, always with the blessing of the Western war industry.

We reiterate that the political and military crisis that broke out in Ukraine in early 2014 marked the end of the constructive relationship between Russia and the West that had developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a result, we witness a new period of heightened rivalry with former Cold War adversaries, who were thought to be dead and buried, or at best drunk on Coke and Hollywood soft power.

This confrontation is reminiscent of the Cold War, but differs from it in many ways. In the current situation, the value component is represented to a lesser extent than the conflict between communism and liberal democracy, which had a permeating ideological and political depth – hence a moral justification.

It should be said that the traditional military dimension – which is always present – has not become predominant and exclusive, or at least not yet. The Ukrainian crisis is fraught with global consequences but, in itself, is not central to the international system and does not become an organising principle of world politics and the foreign policy of the main parties to the conflict, primarily the United States of America. If historical analogies are appropriate here, it is better to draw a comparison with the aforementioned 19th century Russian-British Great Game, with the exception that today the Russian-American rivalry is asymmetrical.

The severity of the crisis came as a surprise to many people in Ukraine itself, in Russia, and in the United States of America, not to mention in the faint-hearted European Union-Christmas land. This does not obviously mean that the ongoing crisis and the deteriorating atmosphere in Russia’s relations with the West have been ignored. Nevertheless, many Ukraine experts, who believed that – as in the book Il Gattopardo by Tomasi di Lampedusa, when referring to the political practice of making reforms that are only apparent and not substantial – “the more this country changes, the more it stays the same”, were taken aback by the dynamic development of events.

At the end of February 2014, Ukraine “swang” too strongly and abruptly to the West and lost its strategic equilibrium that had held it together for almost a quarter of a century. Shortly before, US support for “liberal” change in Ukraine – achieved by overthrowing a democratically elected President – had gone beyond its usual boundaries. The backlash from Russia, which felt cornered, surprised everyone.

A new phase in the struggle for influence is quite real and today we cannot clearly predict either its duration or outcome. One thing is clear: a new era has begun for the Euro-Atlantic region.

The Ukrainian crisis was preceded by a competition between the European Union and Russia over Ukraine’s geoeconomic orientation. The roots of the crisis are related to the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, which put an end to the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, and to the turbulence in the global financial market, which increased the relevance of regional economic structures. The European Union and Russia assessed the outcome of the war and the relevance of the crisis differently. Having developed the Eastern Partnership programme in 2009, the Europeans moved towards the political and economic association of Ukraine and five other former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova). That initiative was not so much a step towards EU expansion, but rather an attempt to create a comfort zone on its Eastern border and strengthen the pro-Western orientation of the participating countries.

The Russian Federation, in turn, sought to involve Ukraine and most other post-Soviet States in the implementation of its Customs Union project. The work for its establishment also intensified in 2009 and ended in May 2014 with the signing of an agreement on the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union and on the improvement of its position in the relations with its large continental neighbours: the EU in the West and the People’s Republic of China in the East.

Ukraine’s inclusion in that scheme, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to achieve since 2003-2004, as early as the time of the “single economic space” project, was supposed to provide the new association with a “critical mass” of 200 million consumers, of which the Ukrainians would be almost a quarter. At the same time, President Putin remained faithful to his De Gaulle’s vision of a Greater Europe from the Atlantic to Vladivostok, which he revived in 2010.

Therefore, both the EU and Russia considered Ukraine an important element of their geopolitical plans. The Russian side also tried to explore the possibility for Ukraine to be simultaneously integrated with the EU and the Customs Union, which would enable it to maintain a balance within the country and in international relations. Nevertheless, Westerners – on behalf of third parties – categorically rejected negotiations with “another” party on Ukraine’s association. Both Russia and the EU eventually began to see Ukraine’s choice as a zero-sum game and spared no effort to influence its outcome. We are witnessing the results day by day on TV, and reading about it in the newspapers.

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Fifth report on the EU visa-free regime with Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries

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What is the Commission presenting today?

Today, the Commission reports on results of its monitoring of the EU visa-free regime with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. For the countries that obtained visa exemptions less than 7 years ago (Georgia and Ukraine), the report also provides a more detailed assessment of other actions taken to ensure the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks.

What is the general assessment?

The Commission considers that all countries concerned have taken action to address the recommendations made in the previous report and continue to fulfil the visa liberalisation requirements. However, all 8 countries need to continue to take further measures to address different concerns related to the fight against organised crime, financial fraud and money laundering, as well as addressing high-level corruption and irregular migration. To ensure a well-managed migration and security environment, and to prevent irregular migration flows to the EU, the assessed countries must ensure further alignment with the EU’s visa policy. Countries concerned should also take action to effectively phase out investor citizenship schemes or refrain from systematically granting citizenship by investment.

It is imperative that the reform process undertaken during the visa liberalisation negotiations is sustained and that the countries do not backtrack on their achievements.

What is a visa liberalisation requirement (benchmark)?

While 61 countries around the world benefit from visa-free travel to the EU, in some cases, visa free access can be decided following bilateral negotiations, called ‘visa liberalisation dialogues’. They are based on the progress made by the countries concerned in implementing major reforms in areas such as strengthening the rule of law, combatting organised crime, corruption and migration management and improving administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.

Visa liberalisation dialogues were successfully conducted between the EU and the 8 countries covered by today’s report. On this basis, the EU granted visa-free travel to nationals of these countries; for Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia in December 2009, for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end 2010, for Moldova in April 2014, for Georgia in March 2017 and for Ukraine in June 2017.

These dialogues were built upon ‘Visa Liberalisation Roadmaps’ for the Western Balkan countries and ‘Visa Liberalisation Action Plans’ for the Eastern Partnership countries.

During the visa liberalisation dialogues, the Commission closely monitored the implementation of the Roadmaps and Action Plans through regular progress reports. These progress reports were then transmitted to the European Parliament and the Council and are publicly accessible (see here for the Western Balkan countries and here for Eastern Partnership countries).

Why does the report only assess 8 countries out of all those which have visa-free regimes with the EU?

The report only focuses on countries that have successfully completed a visa liberalisation dialogue: Albania; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Montenegro; North Macedonia; Serbia; Georgia; Moldova and Ukraine.

Under the EU rules, the Commission is responsible for reporting to the European Parliament and the Council on the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by non-EU countries which have successfully concluded a visa liberalisation dialogue less than seven years ago.

Georgia and Ukraine have been visa-exempt for less than seven years, therefore the Commission is required to report on the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks. As regards Moldova and the visa-free countries in the Western Balkans, which are visa exempt since more than 7 years, the report focuses on the follow-up to the specific recommendations the Commission made in the fourth report adopted in August 2021, and assesses the actions taken to address them. An assessment of aspects related to the visa liberalisation benchmarks for the Western Balkans is included in the European Commission’s annual Enlargement Package.

What is the Commission doing to help partner countries to address organised crime and irregular migration?

The Commission together with EU agencies and Member States are stepping up operational cooperation to address both organised crime and irregular migration with the countries assessed in the report.

On 5 December the Commission presented an EU Action Plan on the Western Balkans. It aims to strengthen the cooperation on migration and border management with partners in Western Balkans in light of their unique status with EU accession perspective and their continued efforts to align with EU rules.

Partner countries are encouraged to actively participate in all relevant EU Policy Cycle/EMPACT operational action plans, undertaken to fight serious and organised crime. The EU-Western Balkans Joint Action Plan on Counter-Terrorism is an important roadmap and evidence of our strengthened cooperation to address key priority actions in the area of security, including the prevention of all forms of radicalisation and violent extremism, and challenges posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters and their families.

The EU has signed a number of Status Agreements with Western Balkan countries on border management cooperation. The agreements allow the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to carry out deployments and joint operations on the territory of neighbouring non-EU countries. A number of agreements have been successfully implemented and the remaining agreements should be swiftly finalised.

Cooperation between Frontex and partner countries takes place though different level working arrangements, and includes cooperation on return operations as well as information exchange, sharing best practices and conducting joint risk analyses.

The Commission is also providing significant financial support to partner countries to support capacity building and the law enforcement reforms.

What is the Commission doing to ensure the partner countries’ alignment with the EU’s visa policy?

Visa policy alignment is a pre-condition to ensure a continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks as well as to ensure a well-managed migration and security environment.

All countries covered in the report are required to take further actions to align their visa policies with the EU’s. The Commission has consistently recommended, both in the visa suspension mechanism reports and in the annual enlargement packages, that the countries should ensure further alignment of their respective visa policies with the EU lists of visa-required third countries, in particular as regards those third countries which present irregular migration or security risks for the EU.

What are the next steps?

The report sets out actions to be taken by the partner countries to ensure the sustainability of reforms. Close monitoring is an ongoing process, including through senior officials meetings as well as the regular Justice, Freedom and Security subcommittee meetings and dialogues between the EU and visa-free countries, the regular enlargement reports, including, where relevant, EU accession negotiations.

What is the revised visa suspension mechanism?

The visa suspension mechanism was first introduced as part of the EU’s visa policy in 2013. The mechanism gives a possibility to temporarily suspend the visa exemption for a non-EU country, for a short period of time, in case of a substantial increase in irregular migration from the partner countries.

The European Parliament and the Council adopted a revised mechanism which entered into force in 2017. Under the revised mechanism, the Commission can trigger the suspension mechanism, whereas previously only Member States could do so. In addition, the revised mechanism introduced an obligation for the Commission to:

  • monitor the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements which were used to assess to grant visa free travel to a non-EU country as a result of a successful conclusion of a visa liberalisation dialogue;
  • report regularly to the European Parliament and to the Council, at least once a year, for a period of seven years after the date of entry into force of visa liberalisation for that non-EU country.

The new measures allow the European Union to react quicker and in a more flexible manner when faced with a sudden increase in irregular migration or in internal security risks relating to the nationals of a particular non-EU country.

When can the suspension mechanism be triggered?

The suspension mechanism can be triggered in the following circumstances:

  • a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number people arriving  irregularly  from visa-free countries, including people found to be staying irregularly, and persons refused entry at the border;
  • a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number of asylum applications with from countries low recognition rate (around 3-4%);
  • a decline in cooperation on readmission;
  • an increased risk to the security of Member States.

The Commission can also trigger the mechanism in case certain requirements are no longer met as regards the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks by non-EU countries that have gone through a visa liberalisation dialogue.

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Hungary’s Victor Orban uses soccer to project Greater Hungary and racial exclusivism

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Image source: veja.abril.com.br

Hungary didn’t qualify for the Qatar World Cup, but that hasn’t stopped Prime Minister Victor Orban from exploiting the world’s current focus on soccer to signal his Putinesque definition of central European borders as defined by civilization and ethnicity rather than internationally recognized frontiers.

Mr. Orban drew the ire of Ukraine and Romania for wearing to a local Hungarian soccer match a scarf depicting historical Hungary, which also includes chunks of Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia.

It was the second time in a matter of months that Mr. Orban spelt out his irredentist concept of geography that makes him a member of a club of expansionist leaders that includes Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu, and members of the Indian power elite, who define their countries’ borders in civilisational rather than national terms.

Speaking in July to university summer camp students in Romania, which is home to 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians, Mr. Orban insisted that “Hungary has…national…and even European ambitions. This is why…the motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together.”

Responding to Ukrainian and Romanian objections to his scarf, Mr. Orban insisted that “soccer is not politics. Do not read things into it that are not there. The Hungarian national team belongs to all Hungarians, wherever they live!”

Hungary has accused Ukraine of restricting the right of an estimated 150,000 ethnic Hungarians to use Hungarian in education because of a 2017 law that curbs the usage of minority languages in schools.

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger presented Mr. Orban with a new scarf at a recent summit of Central European leaders in a twist of satire. “I noticed that Viktor Orban has an old scarf, so I gave him a new one today,” Mr. Heger said on Facebook.

Mr. Orban’s territorial ambitions may pose a lesser threat than his supremacist and racist attitudes.

Those attitudes constitute building blocks of a cvilisationalist world that he shares with Christian nationalists and Republicans in the United States, as well as a new Israeli coalition government that Mr. Netanyahu is forming. Mr. Putin has used similar arguments to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

In contrast to Mr. Putin and potentially Mr. Netanyahu, depending on how the Biden administration responds to his likely coalition, Mr. Orban is on a far tighter leash regarding territorial ambition as a member of NATO and the European Union.

As a result, far more insidious is what amounts to a mainstreaming of racism and supremacism by men like Mr. Orban, Mr. Netanyahu, and former US President Donald Trump, who consistently mainstream norms of decency and propriety by violating them with impunity.

Speaking a language shared by American Christian nationalists and Mr. Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners, Mr. Orban rejected in his July speech a “mixed-race world” defined as a world “in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe.”

The prime minister asserted that mixed-race countries “are no longer nations: They are nothing more than conglomerations of peoples” and are no longer part of what Mr. Orban sees as “the Western world.” The prime minister stopped short of identifying those countries, but the United States and Western European nations would fit the bill.

In a similar vein, Mr. Trump recently refused to apologise for having dinner with Ye, a rapper previously known as Kanye West, who threatened he would go “death on con 3 on Jewish people,” and Nick Fuentes, a 24-year old pro-Russian trafficker in Holocaust denial and white supremacism.

Mr. Trump hosted the two men at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, just after launching his 2024 presidential election campaign. Mr. Ye “was really nice to me,” Mr. Trump said.

Candidates backed by Mr. Trump in last month’s US midterm elections, including Hershel Walker, who is competing in next week’s runoff in Georgia, have similarly felt comfortable associating themselves with Messrs. Ye and Fuentes.

Mr. Fuentes asserted days before the dinner that “Jews have too much power in our society. Christians should have all the power, everyone else very little,” while Mr. Ye’s manager, Milo Yannopoulos, announced that “we’re done putting Jewish interests first.”

Mr. Yonnopoulos added that “it’s time we put Jesus Christ first again in this country. Nothing and no one is going to get in our way to make that happen.”

Featured on notorious far-right radio talk show host Alex Jones’ Infowars, Mr. Ye professed his admiration of Adolf Hitler. “I like Hitler,” Mr. Ye said, listing the various reasons he admired the notorious Nazi leader.

Mr. Netanyahu’s likely coalition partners seek to legislate discriminatory distinctions between adherents of different Jewish religious trends, hollow out Israeli democracy, introduce an apartheid-like system, disband the Palestinian Authority, expel Palestinians “disloyal to Israel” in what would amount to ethnic cleansing, deprive women of their rights, and re-introduce homophobia.

Avraham Burg, an Israeli author, politician, businessman, and scion of a powerful leader of a defunct once mainstream religious political party, warned in 2018 that Messrs. Orban, Trump, and Netanyahu “are the leaders of paranoia and phobia.”

Mr. Burg cautioned that they represent “a global phenomenon that crosses all boundaries, ethnic, racial, or religious, gathering into a tribal ghetto that is smaller than the modern state, which is diverse and inclusive of all its citizens. Their fierce antagonism to the foundations of democracy and the attempt to do detriment to as many accomplishments and benefits of the open society as possible are evidence of inherent weaknesses and real existential fears.”

Mr. Burg’s dire vision is even more a reality today than when he spoke out four years ago.

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